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Avoiding conflict in the workplace

by Paul Randolph, Mediator and Regents University London on 04-May-2016

 

How can we avoid conflict in the workplace? The short answer is: we cannot. It is impossible. Conflict is an integral part of all human interaction, whether in offices, factories or any other business environment. However, we can learn to work with conflict and to manage it more effectively so as to make it productive for us in our every-day working lives says Paul Randolph, Mediator and Course Leader Regent's University in London.

 

Conflict is an essential component of our very existence. We are never without conflict. Throughout each day, every decision we take involves a potential dispute: whenever we say 'yes' to someone or something, we say 'no' to someone or something else.

 

Yet there are many positive aspects of conflict. It is, for example, a necessary precursor for change: without conflict things in business would remain stagnant and might never transform. It also has a bonding effect: when faced with a dispute, parties tend to align themselves together and work more collaboratively against a common enemy.

 

All disputes in the workplace have a common thread: somebody wants something and another is not willing to give it. The reasons for wanting will be partly rational ('I need a larger desk to accommodate two computer screens') and partly emotional ('a larger desk and two screens will demonstrate that I am valued by the company'). Similarly with the refusal: 'we do not have the space for a larger desk', as opposed to: 'we do not see why we should simply give in to his/her demand'.

 

The problem with such disputes is that emotions tend frequently to overwhelm reason. We are driven into disputes by a myriad of psychological and emotional drivers, which invariably make it impossible for us to see things rationally. Employers who scratch their heads in bewilderment at the child-like antics of their employees, often pray that 'common sense will prevail' - but it rarely does. Whilst there may be sense, it will rarely be common. Each party to a dispute fervently believes that they are completely in the right and the other is wholly in the wrong. What is more, we all have a tendency to believe we are the only normal rational and logical people in the room.

 

So what is it that makes us so angry that we are unable to see sense? Our emotions are often triggered by an attack upon our self esteem and upon our values. Our self esteem involves a desire for approval - we need to think well of ourselves and we want others to think well of us. So at work, we constantly strive for recognition, for respect and endorsement. Conversely, we have an aversion to disapproval. So any form of criticism, rebuke, condemnation or rejection will effect our self esteem and will invariably result in an emotional or defensive response.

 

Such emotional responses can also be triggered when our values - the principles by which we choose to live - are disregarded. For example, if we have a value system around tidiness or punctuality, we cannot abide a work colleague who is untidy or constantly late. It will matter not that the colleague is industrious, creative and productive. If he or she is untidy or unpunctual, this contravenes our value system and we take immediate offense. Our values will have become pedantically 'sedimented' and impervious to reason and in such circumstances it serves no purpose for anyone to wag their finger at us and tell us to be sensible or reasonable.

 

The Psychology of Conflict, by Paul Randolph It is only through an understanding of these psychological drivers that we can begin to manage conflict effectively. We need to appreciate that the emotional and seemingly irrational behaviour on the part of a colleague, employee or employer is likely to be the product of their self esteem or value system having been threatened or jeopardised.

 

Workplace disputes are rarely as stated or as seen on the surface. So with these psychological insights, we can more readily focus upon the essence and core of the conflict, with greater tolerance and understanding. Our attitudes and approach may then become more flexible, enabling us to address workplace disputes directly and efficiently, providing further support and with greater empathy.

You can read and learn more from Paul's book: The Psychology of Conflict